Farming
John Huey Williams
John Huey Williams
John Huey Williams

Organic horticulture in the Willunga plains has changed radically in the last few decades. Under pressure from government policy to encourage water efficiency measures, grapes have largely replaced the water hungry almonds.

Water use and sustainability issues remain prominent and controversial in the Willunga area, and nearby McLaren Vale grape growing region. Although grapes produce a greater return to the grower per hectare of land and per megalitre of water, questions remain about the desirable diversity of agricultural production, tourism potential, land use conflicts around chemical inputs and overall sustainability of viticulture. Stonefruit has almost completely disappeared from the district, the last cropping land is under severe pressure from housing projects, and consequently the last few dairies that relied on this land for reserve fodder are also threatened. Revegetation of the long-bared Willunga escarpment is also a factor that intersects with water catchment and quality, and reforestation of this p[rominent landform is an encouraging feature of recent changes.

Regardless of the controversies, the relentless spread of vines across the region continues, driven by water policy and the pressing need to improve financial returns from agriculture. Two interesting issues are inescapable in any observation of these changes. The first is the strong tendency for the organic growers to maintain some of their production diversity, or even to increase it. For instance Adrian Strachan's property grows almonds, vines and olives, with extensive planting of multi-row, multi-species, multi-height native windbreaks, whereas many non-organic growers have pulled all the orchards and almonds, for which Willunga was once famous. Almonds now produce a much less subdued blanket of white blossom to brighten the district in late winter.

Another feature of the changed land use is the herbicide strip under new vines. Even the organic growers generally withdraw from certification for a few years after planting, to establish the new vines well, before returning to organic certification.

John and his wife Catherine have retained their certification for 4 hectares of almonds, on a 8.4 hectare property at the foot-slope of the Willunga scarp. The first of the vines were planted in 1998, and the grape area was removed from certification. A further patch was planted in 2001, requiring a small patch of almonds to be removed.

Almond harvest
Almond harvest
Planting grapes

Very few organic grape growers establish their vines without some herbicide use. Strong early growth is vital to form the framework of a good vine and to produce a good root system. In this early period, vines are sensitive to weed competition, and without good control many young vines will die.

In the case of John Huey-Williams, a serious invasive weed was already established over some of the property. African Featherweed (see photo) is not easily controlled by organic methods, and John admits to having accelerated to problem the first year after purchasing the property, by cultivation. The African Featherweed was spread across this part of the property by the cultivation equipment. Subsequent experimentation with various weed control methods revealed that only chemicals or massive and uneconomical labour inputs were going to be successful. The weed rebounded rapidly from experimental burning, slashing and brush-cutting.

The decision to blanket spray with glyphosate was reluctantly taken. After the Featherweed died the planting strips were then turned over with a mouldboard plough, to break up the think clumps of weed. After leaving the lines for some time, for soil to settle and the weed root mass to break up, the planting strips were then rotary hoed and finally ripped.

Planting material for Shiraz was sourced from two nearby properties (one of these was the original source for plantings on the second, so all the material had similar genetics) and planted into the rip-lines. Subsequent planting material has come from cuttings from John's own vines.

For the next three years, John chose not to spray the under-vine area, a common treatment, but to spot spray with a knapsack sprayer instead.

John has now ceased herbicide application over the area of the 1998 plantings, and the vines have returned to organic certification.

He uses brush-cutting as a main treatment for weeds in the under-vine area and is very happy with this method. Brushcutting may not be economical for larger vineyards, but with less than 2 hectares of vines, John is content to stay with this system. With practice accuracy and speed increase, and the time spent by the grower, in close contact with the vines, is important for John. He spends a lot of time in the vines, and can see problems developing and respond quickly.

In some areas of the vineyard John has introduced low growing clovers as weed competition and for soil management. John is very reluctant to use much cultivation, as the vines are on a (gentle) slope, and because of the gully winds.

Green manure crops (alternate rows of cereals and faba beans) grown in the inter-row used to be disked in, but this treatment is now largely supplanted by just slashing them to the ground.

In the Willunga district John has found Trichala clovers are ideal under the vines, as they spread well but stay close to the ground.

In the longer term John will also acquire a side-throw slasher. He also likes to use sheep in the vineyard, for a limited time in the winter. John is very enthusiastic about his experience with use of sheep in the almonds, saying they were "made for each other". He obtained six crossbred ewes early on, that threw lots of twin lambs. Their progeny has continued to show a tendency for multiple births and they are easy to manage. John says "sheep eat some almonds, but it is desirable to have a high pruned canopy anyway, so we can get under the tree for occasional mowing and at harvest time. They also get many weeds and reduce the number of tractor passes required, and they have some fertilizer value, but you must get varieties that are happy to stay behind a fence. John says, "If a particular sheep is a problem, I cull it out". He continues, "Sheep are a reminder to be vigilant with pruning too, and the fruit they take is generally at an early stage of development, so the tree puts the energy saved into the remainder of the crop. In any case, birds take more almonds that the sheep do."

Being near the sea, and at the foot-slope of a steep and un-treed escarpment, there are often rapid temperature changes at night, which produce very strong katabatic wind (gully winds). These winds are a boon to pest control, as air movement through and around open-pruned vines is one of the best cultural controls for fungal disease. Indeed John has only ever once sprayed copper for shot hole in the almonds, when he first moved to the property. John says "loosing a tree every five years or so is a small price to pay for the benefit I get from these winds, and a reminder to prune out the trees before they get leggy and top-heavy."

When a skilled horticulturist such as John spends this much time in the vines, hand picking, pruning and brush-cutting, he develops an intimate knowledge of the property. In conversation, John is able to refer to individual rows and vines within the row, as he describes his treatments and history of the vineyard. It is important to emphasis that this contact must be backed up with some research and learning, but on all the really good organic properties, regardless of scale (i.e. even on the largest properties) this contact with the crop is a feature of the grower's relationship with the land.

I first went to work in broadacre agriculture in 1978, when I joined CSIRO Division of Soils. Some of the farmers we worked with I quickly came to call "tractor seat" growers, because they never got closer to the crop than the tractor seat (a fair way up in a big tractor on the Eyre Peninsula). I contrast this with other growers who never went into the paddock without taking a sweep net to assess pest (and predator) numbers, or a shovel to dig in the soil, and examine root growth or moisture profiles. Clearly the second group has better information and with some reading, talking and listening, was able to apply this knowledge effectively.

All the Willunga growers with whom I have had close contact, including Frank Wolper, Adrian Strachan and John Huey Williams, are good horticulturists. They have what some people call a "green thumb", which is really just practiced observation. I recently discussed this with John, who probably does know in his heart that he is a good grower, but is too humble to acknowledge it much. I suggested to him that this ability to notice a stressed vine while flashing past on the motor cycle is not shared by everyone, nor is the skill to interpret the stress to its root cause, whether that be soil fertility, pests, the need to irrigate or just bad genetics.

Watching John hand prune the vines is again evidence of his growing skills. To produce a quality crop, rather than just volume, he prunes to one spur and one or two buds per spur. I notice that he is as fast at this as other growers who leave many more buds. Most growers who prune this hard will take much more time, always concerned that they are removing too much growth.

The result is a high quality fruit, for which he receives a premium. John says his market is very interested in organics, and willing to pay the price to maintain access to quality fruit and to preserve the potential for organic processing in the future. John says "I can't see why it isn't a marketing edge to be certified, because awareness will only grow, and besides, in my climate zone I can do it easily, and without having to handle chemicals, which, lets face it, none of us enjoys."

John adds "it is not really harder to be organic, but it is different. I don't get the benefits of glyphosate but I do get the personal and health benefits of staying chemical free and being happy to be out in the vines at any time."

John has plant another 2 hectares to vines that have yet to produce a marketable crop.

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